Halting the plagiarism plague

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Laziness and commercial opportunism are breeding academic dishonesty

The recent exposé around assessment and tutoring brought forth important issues and concerns, especially for me as a university lecturer. External assessment seems to be the source of the problem that leads to cheating and to students seeking tutors and others to undertake tasks on their behalf.

The obvious question that arises is why the assessment items used within the units chosen by some full fee-paying overseas students, were not as robust.

The implication has been that the high income generated by universities from overseas full fee-paying students has caused them to turn away from addressing senior issues arising with respect to assessment.

It is relatively simple to create plagiarism-proof assessments that are defensible and will actually test the understanding, knowledge and skills of the students. All it takes is imagination, will and some effort.

I teach trainee teachers at university and this year, for the first time for my teaching methods units, I included a compulsory exam in each of the semesters. There were three reasons for this.

Firstly, examination was chosen as I had noticed an increasing number of students were distracted by mobile devices (tablets, mobiles and the like) and I wanted them to pay attention to the class and the issues, ideas and breadth of content undertaken in the unit of study.

The notion that a student can effectively ‘multi-task’ was not borne out in class discussion (by either gender), or in questioning students about their understanding of the issues covered. The use of examination as one of three assessment items certainly helped to foster both attendance and attention!

Secondly, I thought that it was important for trainee teachers to understand, and also feel, the stress of taking an examination, akin to the stress that will characterise the lives of the students that they will teach, engendering a capacity to empathise.

Thirdly, I knew that there were students who, were I to use other forms of assessment, would pass, but I suspected that on actual academic merit, would not. I used a mixture of multiple choice questions and scenario-based problem solving. I also included stimulus so that students did not need to experience a situation where only their memory is assessed and not their comprehension.

Making assessment truly plagiarism-proof requires that students who engage in the task cannot outsource the task to a third party.

It also requires students to apply what they know instead of being required to re-state what they have learned. The focus of exams should be on applying knowledge and skills, not simply on recalling and classifying knowledge.

The approach by universities, as ‘centres of learning’, should be to carefully consider the purpose of assessment prior to allowing a course to be offered. A plagiarism-proof assessment can be achieved by applying the following rules:

1. Make sure that every past assessment for the course is publically available. In this way students can prepare appropriately for what they might expect they will be examined on. However, in order to discourage lazy academic practices, new assessment tasks should be written annually. In this way academics will be saying to their students that thinking skills and an application of knowledge and understanding to the content, ideas and issues covered matters, more than simple memorisation.

2. Vary the forms of assessment used annually. When the same assessment item is used over and over then the current students may simply ask previous students for copies of their previously completed and marked assessments.

3. Ensure that foreach task, every student is assessed for the veracity of their input. An element of accountability for any submitted work is essential. This can be done by having each student present a verbal justification of the task and the issues they faced in completing it. They can also be asked a series of questions that are ‘without notice’. In this way the assessor can determine whether the student actually understands the work that has been submitted. Moreover, this also can ensure that there is consistency between the level of spoken and written English.

The traditional form of closed book exam is probably not the best vehicle for testing the application of knowledge and skills, but creative exams can use stimulus and supplementary notes to preclude the possibility that students will find sneaky means of hiding or secreting content. The testing of understanding, application, the capacity to synthesise, be creative and critique can easily be integrated into a well-formulated examination.

There are academics in each type of educational institution (universities, schools, private colleges, vocational colleges) that resist these suggestions. But true educators are those who self-assess their own practices and continually strive for something better. Assessment is as much a test of the assessor as those being assessed.